TALKS Berührungslust
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Berührungslust

Like all of you, I suspect, who agreed to join your voices in this chorus of translators that grows clearer with every song, I spent a lot of time repeating the word Berührungsangst to myself, murmuring it, chanting it, silently pondering it from every angle—semantic, phonetic, rhythmic—comparing the singular, Berührungsangst, with the plural, Berührungsängste, trying to get a grip on the word, to pin it down, make it ‘mean something’. This (often premature) gut reaction is the first stage in the process of translation, before a translator has worked out what resonances the word has for her, what place it holds in the mystery of her language. The next step is to find an eloquent equivalent, but my search for a free and supple rendering of Berührungsangst yielded nothing musical enough and—repeatedly, pathetically—I found myself resorting to a lifeless literal translation, reduced to the flat-footed fear of contact, a hollow-sounding solution, far too close to the original for my liking, so that eventually, I was forced to admit defeat and accept that for the time being at least, I was incapable of finding a translation that resonated.

But the more I listened to the harmonics of Berührungs a n g s t, the more clearly I began to hear another chord emerging—Berührungs l u s t. It seemed to me that this chord might be a little more easily rendered, that I might find in its ending the opportunity for a new beginning, a blossoming.

Berührungslust. We could, for the sake of convenience,1 translate this as: ‘the desire to touch and be touched’. This word, too, has its plural, Berührungs l ü s t e, a more harmonious plural, perhaps, than Berührungs ä n g s t e, thanks to the almost poetic weight and rhythm of those twin Üs, but also a rather mannered word—fraught with desires that are, perhaps, a little too plural,2 scattered before they come to anything—so that it is the singular, the lovely, rounded singular that insinuates its melody into my ear, reminding me of the first time that I felt such a desire—a desire that, no sooner touched on, turns to lustBerührungslust…

 

Und fast ein Mädchen wars und ging hervor
Aus diesem einigen Glück von Sang und Leier
und glänzte klar durch ihre Frühlingsschleier
und machte sich ein Bett in meinem Ohr.

 

C’était presque une enfant et qui surgit pareille
de l’unique bonheur de la lyre et du chant,
brillant si claire sous ses voiles de printemps
et là elle se fit un lit dans mon oreille.

 

[Almost a girl she was and issued forth
from this united joy of song and lyre
and shone out clearly through her veils of spring

and made herself a bed inside my ear.]3

Some years ago, when I made my first valiant efforts in amateur poetry translation, I decided to retranslate or, as German more powerfully and precisely has it, nachdichten—to recompose, post-poeticize, after-write—Rainer Maria Rilke’s Sonnets to Orpheus, because I knew of no French version that reproduced even a modicum of the clarity or force of the original.4

After months turning over in my mind the lines of a single quatrain—nervous and overeager in my attempt to confront my Berührungs a n g s t, but already carried away by Berührungs l u s t —I arrived at a translation that seemed capable of standing on its own two feet without too much wobbling, and prepared to launch myself into the complete cycle of fifty-five sonnets, beginning with the poem that contained my fetish lines.

Yet one last doubt remained. Was there a translation I had overlooked—a translation new and radical enough to warrant postponing my project, or even abandoning it altogether? I did some final research to set my mind at rest, and immediately discovered, as if it had been waiting for me all along, that natural phenomenon, that cataract of verse that is Charles Dobzynski’s Sonnets à Orphée.5 To set my mind at rest! Which of us has not prepared to submit the manuscript of a long-matured translation only to be hit a revelation so tremendous that it upsets not only this or that patiently thought-out solution, but our vision and understanding of the text itself?

 

Und schlief in mir. Und alles war ihr Schlaf.
Die Bäume, die ich je bewundert, diese
fühlbare Ferne, die gefühlte Wiese
und jedes Staunen, das mich selbst betraf.

 

Et tout fut le sommeil de celle en moi dormant.
Ces arbres admirés quelque jour, ce sensible
lointain et la prairie à éprouver tangible
et ce qui m’atteignait de chaque étonnement.

 

[And slept in me. And all this was her sleep:
the trees that I had always marvelled at,
this distance you could feel, the grass I’d felt
and each of my own thrills of wonderment.]

 

With a different pair of languages and on less familiar poetic territory, I would doubtless have felt the same shock, the same sense of awakening on encountering Sika Fakambi’s Zora Neale Hurston,6Jean-Baptiste Para’s Boris Ryji, Valérie Rouzeau’s Sylvia Plath7—and, above all, Rilke’s translations of the many voices that came to inhabit him.8 In his moving preface to the Sonnets à Orphée, Charles Dobzynski speaks of the redeeming fascination of poetry to his young self, a Polish Jewish boy who, having escaped the horrors of the war, saw Rilke’s language as a secret opportunity to appropriate an aspect of Germanic culture left untouched by the Nazis. He writes:

‘Learning the Sonnets by heart, day after day, I had for the first time a real sense of what a rigorously applied and subtly fulfilled poetic form can exert in the way of compulsion, to the point of acting on your memory with the force of an electromagnet. As I repeated the poems, caught up in their rhythms and patterns, I found myself entering into their game; I felt their transfusion and metamorphosis taking place inside me, as if in obedience to the phenomenon of transmutation that Rilke so often invokes. The fermentation of certain words during the process of creation produced an alcohol of the mind that kept me awake and alert, returning to me again and again like a leitmotif, and I ruminated on those words deep inside myself, or recited them out loud, at table or at the wheel of my car, so that my astonished son must have wondered what an earth had got into me as I declaimed:—’

 

Sie schlief die Welt. Singender Gott, wie hast
du sie vollendet, daß sie nicht begehrte
erst wach zu sein? Sieh, sie erstand und schlief.

 

Elle dormait le monde. Ô Dieu chanteur, est-ce que
tu l’as parfaite afin qu’elle n’ait point d’abord
désir de s’éveiller ? Vois, levée elle dort.

 

[She slept the world. But how, o singing god,
did you make her such that she knew no desire
to be awake? See, she arose and slept.]

 

Dobzynski was fifteen when he made his first attempt at translating the Sonnets, but it remained unfinished, and it was only years later, after becoming editor-in-chief of the literary journal Europe, that he would return to the text for an issue dedicated to Rilke. Discarding all his old drafts, he started from scratch and set to work on the entire sonnet cycle, producing a translation that was published by two successive houses but soon went out of print. Another twenty-two years would pass before he decided to rework his translation, giving us his last, miraculous version of the Sonnets à Orphée. Further on in his preface—which I am almost tempted to quote in its entirety—he adds:

‘Do we know why some music grips us and possesses us and won’t let us go? What makes some words rather than others take over our beings and spill their seed inside us—the obscure seed of something that won’t germinate until much later, something we are deaf and blind to at the time, but which begins to weave a tapestry in our unconscious, not yet fully discernible, but already bursting with the unknown that bodies it forth in the dark.’

When I think of Berührungslust, not as the opposite of Berührungsangst, but as going beyond it—and I might almost say, with a nod towards Rilke’s tree springing up from the dark earth,9‘ transcending’ it—when I think of Berührungslust, an image comes to my mind of Charles Dobzynski, possessed all his life by the desire to translate a handful of German poems. Filled with this desire, he went through the war and came out of it alive; blessed by this desire alone, he reached out to touch the language, the text, his readers—and, in touching them, he touched his own soul and united these forces in a benevolent and redemptive constellation.10

Thus the translator was metamorphosed into Orpheus touching his lyre, and the text that he gave us at the end of those long years of journeying sings like the simplest, purest music—a primal sound. This deep-seated desire to reach out and touch the text, overcoming, sublimating one’s ‘fear of contact’, like a child approaching for the first time a musical instrument she would like to play—this desire to touch, which is also, of course, a fear of touching in the wrong way, of inadvertently damaging or destroying,11 can, if worked hard enough and felt deeply enough, become an ‘art of touching’. This gives us a third word, more literal and less accessible, perhaps, than Berührungsangst and Berührungslust, but still, I think, worth a try—Berührungskunst12

 

Wo ist ihr Tod? O, wirst du dies Motiv
erfinden noch, eh sich dein Lied verzehrte? –
Wo sinkt sie hin aus mir? … Ein Mädchen fast …

 

Où est sa mort ? Ô ce motif, le sauras-tu
Inventer mais avant que ton chant se soit tu ? –
Elle me quitte… Où sombre-t-elle ? Une enfant presque…

 

[Where is her death? Is it, o god, a theme
you will devise before your song expires?—
She slips from me… Where to? ... A girl, almost…]

 

To translate—to reach out your hand in an act that combines the fear of touching in the wrong way with the desire to touch exquisitely.

 

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Alexandre Pateau has translated, together with Julien Lapeyre de Cabanes, a book of poems by Jan Wagner entitled Regentonnenvariationen (Les Variations de la citerne, Actes Sud 2019). In 2020 their translation won the Nelly Sachs Prize and the Max Jacob Prize for a foreign book.